Stephen Nelson

Darjeeling Diary

Morning newspaper headlines above my article.

In short, the king of Sikkim has married a beautiful woman, an American socialite, and already there's talk of the demise of the monarchy and the submersion of the kingdom in India. Her name is Hope Cooke.

I left the temple in the morning after puja feeling like my body was smothered in gold and vibrating still from the blast of the trumpets and the thud of the drums; a delta of clouds in the hills below town; monks spilling out into Darjeeling.

I drank tea in the tea house (rich, dark Assam), from a silver pot, in a China cup, chatting to Padmasambhava, informally. He's my constant companion these days. An imaginary friend? The curl of the cup and the silver pot reflecting green leaves and the rain; twisting vines.

"You're thinking about the woman you saw, aren't you?" he said.

"I am," I said.

There was a beautiful Bhutanese woman in the grounds of the monastery earlier, a business graduate, according to Malcolm. I caught her looking at me, and I looked back, and she turned and glanced over her shoulder, and I followed her smile, and really such a long time since my heart had leapt so. Malcolm noticed, and grinned.

"Take a picture", I said to the great photographer, mocking aggression through a pitifully self-conscious frown.

Malcolm mimicked a snap, clicking his thumb and forefinger.

"Paparazzi!" I said, accusingly.

After tea, a dash through the rain, my white linen shirt and trousers soaked through and clinging to my skin; streets running rain, sweeping rain, clean air smelling like tea and fresh forests.

At home, I practise freeform calligraphy with my ink brush, slapping ink on rice paper, stirring, swirling. I heard there are beatniks in Kathmandu doing similar things.

The clank and crunch and brass bell of the steam engine huffing through the hills.


Evenings like silk; stars and water; the eternal void, pleasant enough. I cough as I write. Mostly I'm content, but there's an itch in my psyche, somewhere; a submerged absence, almost a whisper in a dungeon, but I hear it, occasionally. Not so much through the silk veil of an evening like this.

It sometimes manifests as a current of thought, which I notice, bemused, without listening. It could be anything. It doesn't matter. Padmasambhava says it doesn't matter. He tells me to feel the space, to feel the town, the hills, the distant mountains. He tells me to drink the tea without drinking.

Sip. Silence.


More silence.

The sound of the bell and whistle and chug through the night. Why through the night? A ghost train? I lay awake, drenched in sweat. A faint breeze stirs the curtains, drops into the valley, returns to an unknown source.


10am puja is the best puja for a lazy journalist. The monks adore my Lowland Scots accent, perfectly modified for the song of Darjeeling. The Tibetans are bright, cheerful, deeply devotional, but exiled, like me. It strikes me hard that this is the absence I feel, the whisper in the dungeon. So obvious really. How could I miss it? It strikes me too that such a displacement needn't be an integral part of the self, but then I remember the gate by the river and the hillside full of sheep, and I'm gripped by nostalgia which I resent and try to shun, until Padmasambhava tells me to reject nothing.

The Bhutanese business graduate was missing today. Suddenly I'm melancholy. I wonder if I could interview her for the paper? Is that a pretext? The air is thick with truth and authenticity in these parts. But why not? I think I'll interview her.


One stereotype is quickly replacing another, it seems. At least, that's what I'm observing. The weary image of the old, imperialist writer is being replaced by the story of the beatnik poet seeking enlightenment in exotic lands. I prefer the later, emerging stereotype, but truly I fit neither. Or I'm resistant to being shoehorned into any category or compartment that inhibits my stubborn individualism. Or I'm a reactionary contrarian who will not pitch his tent in any camp unless he's explicitly told he cannot.

On the other hand, something draws me to Kathmandu.

This new stereotype is sweeping over the globe from the United States. Perhaps a greater, concomitant movement will emerge in America itself; if it catches on, America will become a creative paradise of wondrous freedoms and spontaneity; if it fails, America will sink like every other empire in history.

I'm definitely drawn to Kathmandu though. Am I a beatnik!?

Another evening of tea and clouds; the echo and slow withdrawal of the clanging gongs of puja.


It is far too early, and I'm skipping puja because the morning is clear and blue, and I want to view Kangchenjunga in the distance through the steaming black tea plantations, and I want to pray and plan my introduction to His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, who I fervently desire to interview for the paper, or a larger paper, perhaps in the UK, or America; so I drive into the hills and I'm sitting here now, on an outcrop of land, surrounded by wet, green leaves, and the scent of wet tea leaves, fresh and invigorating, hot and wet and clean, gazing at the glory of the snow capped peak, praying to Lord Buddha and the Karmapas, when Padmasambhava pops up and says:

"What about me?"

And I turn and bow and ask him:

"My Lord, grant me an audience with His Holiness."

"Maybe," says Padmasambhava, chewing a tantric bone.

The sun has ascended only so high, but still the mountain, the third highest peak in all the world, dazzles. It gleams white and gold against a black trim of hills, full of Pure Land, Western Land, Shambhala glory. Space opens in my mind, soaked in awareness, soaked in bliss. My sense of self passes out as if drowning in the liquid base of reality.


From the very depth of somewhere unseen, I feel it struggling to re-emerge. My name, Gavin Menzies. My occupation - journalist, calligrapher. My story, my traits, my tastes and proclivities, rising drenched and unformed from nowhere, like mulch, squashed together into something only partly recognisable.


I have work to do and I need a doer to work. My father's dark, accusatory voice drifts through the trees:

"Coward. Sinner."

Fortunately, his dismal Presbyterianism instilled an implicit faith in the workings of the divine in me which I've managed to rearrange and reset as magic rather than judgement. No condemnation now, only manifestation. No God, no guilt, only illusion. I try so hard to think this way, realising the irony of the conceptual mind's very own creation story.

And now it's time to drink tea and compose my letter to Rumtek monastery, newly refurbished. I screw off the plastic cup, and twist open the lid of my tartan flask, pour the brown liquid nectar into the cup. I list my credentials, but I have no faith in them. I mention my employers, but they are insignificant. I have faith in devotion. I write my devotion like a hymn to His Holiness and trust his secretary to recognise its authentic heart.

By midday it’s hot and the tea gardens are sweltering. There are women and children picking leaves and everything is fresh and natural. This is a place where one moves between the natural and the supernatural so seamlessly. The physical and the transcendent are analogous. The mountains are a harmonious choir; the mountain chain is one single sound.




There’s a humming over the hills, and a glow; a green, hallucinatory glow.

There’s a peppery scent in the air and the taste of black tea on my tongue.

I’ve composed a letter to His Holiness’s secretary and I feel very good about myself.

The mountains are a bowed cello played by the sun.


Sitting on a hillside in the sun all day; sitting in my apartment lit by oil lamps in the evening. Electricity stutters, fails; shadows dance and spin. Green and grey in my head, on my body; the dark throb of green in the evening; the surrounding throb of green in leafy, black tea. A constant, alert presence of hills, of green, of buildings tumbling up and down slopes, of bodies lying in beds; the echo of cymbals and drums, chanting, sutras, prayers.

Again the clanging ghost train; I feel unsettled and self-deprecating. I doubt His Holiness will grant me an interview. The man's a magician, a mahasiddha. I have words he would probably silence with a smile. What's the point of words, of interviews? Why do I do what I do? Words are compartments, closets. They have no radiance, no supernatural glow.

Why do I admire another human being at the expense of my own occupation? And yet it sits with me as longing, or desire. Not carnal, but sensual, somehow. It feels like my body wants to wake up and finally hear the morning. Almost like the body developing its own awareness which I, my "self", am present to, simply watching.


"I" seems impenetrable, nothing to grasp. We're slipping down that slope again and there are no mountains to elevate us; sleep, or something narcotic, with tea.


After puja, I talked to Sah by the Buddha in the courtyard. Sah is the name of the Bhutanese business woman. She works for a tea company exporting black tea to Bhutan and Nepal. She was an intriguing mix of confident and coy, smiling freely, laughing, shyly lowering her gaze when my eyes became too searching. The sun shone brightly on the Buddha and her black hair.

I decided not to ask her for an interview. That was a silly idea, not to mention slightly duplicitous.

Later, we walked in the tea garden, and sat on a bench under a tree.

We parted, and I ate some curried lentils, then worked on my questions for the Karmapa, anticipating an interview, however meekly.

So yes, truly I want to connect with people, with women. I'm aware of a lingering guilt, a shadowy resentment, but I can't quite bring it into light. It huffs below my good intentions. So I let it huff. I'm aware of Padmasambhava working on it like an engineer working on a steam train.

"Let me snap the chains and reconnect the filaments," he whispers, while I grumble.


Three days of silence. Something brewing. My routine disrupted. No work. No puja. No Sah.


The weekend is brighter. I have money to spend from my last article, so I go down to the market and buy some linens and ink. I buy meat and rice and spices. Yellow turmeric, green ginger, garam masala. Huge mounds of coloured spices; pyramids of spice; flavour, heat, luminous taste and colour. Mountains of exotic vegetables. I want dragon fruit. I drink a fruity lassi. Creamy nectar, spiced.

I sit in the evening, after curried vegetables with saffron rice, drinking a glass of wine, reading the words of Dudjom Rinpoche, and the songs of Milarepa, yawning, lethargic, heavy and content. My mother sang to me as a child; my father preached. I read and studied and eventually fled, just as my father fell ill. He died last year. Now I remember. The anniversary of his death. I should write to my mother, send her a poem by the great yogi saint. She's soft, accommodating, compassionate. My brothers take care of her now. I send her poems.


The new week rises up the hillside with the chugging steam train; the toys of empire; iron functionality. Banks of cloud hug the hillside. One can breathe or choke or spit in hot air. Distance occluded. Blind street musicians on the way to puja; stringed instruments made of wood and metal; a raw, melancholy folk bhajan, sung in warm, honey tones.

Tea before ceremony.


Then I sit cross-legged while the monks chant sutras and offerings are made to Lord Buddha. Trumpets blare and horns blast out around the temple; drums bang rhythmically, cymbals clash wildly; mind escapes its shackles and vibrates to the rhythm of devotion; heart resonates deep devotion and compassion, skirting empty space in the blissful mind of the buddhas.

Even here though, in focussed awareness, a corner of my mind is twisting and needy, locked in attachment, desperate for attention and companionship. I view it resentfully, tucking it deeper down, switching my attention and running hopelessly into...avoidance. I can analyse it later. Or I can ignore it. Padmasambhava frowns. My eyes search for Sah. There's a moment of recognition, connection. The knot in my mind disappears. A huge gong reverberates in the fathomless sea of mind.

We eat prasad after puja and I'm close to her. I wonder if she read my article. What a silly thought! I can't entertain it, and I cannot dwell on how ridiculous it is because I'll fall head long into its source - a chasm of self-doubt, a swirling riot of uncertainty and confusion. I search for my core, and find it running the length of me, from top to tail through the centre of my body. This is my light, my stream of individuated awareness, a river running into the sea.

Padmasambhava bows.

"That was me this time," I whisper.

"I am you," he says.

At last I'm talking to Sah while we eat the sacred fruit surrounded by monks who seem unperturbed by the women who visit the temple on a daily basis. Despite their strict vows of celibacy, they are irrepressibly merry. We comment on the selection of fruit, the sweets and chocolate, the abundance of flower petals. She jokes about the Buddha's cavities, enlightened fillings; talks a little about Bhutan, her family, the male sexual organ. Apparently Bhutan is covered with penis art. They paint the erect phallus on their houses up there for luck, or fun. My Presbyterian repression scrunches up a little and I stare around awkwardly at the monks, then let it go and smile casually, as if penis talk in a monastery is perfectly good and natural. I'm mindful of her body, her elegant hands, the way the food hovers in slim fingers before an open mouth as she gazes up at me, listening. Her energy is sensual, refined, intelligent. Her manner is considerate. As we're leaving, I ask if she'd like to meet for dinner sometime. I'm delighted when she says yes. The enthusiasm seems entirely mutual too. She asks if there are any Scottish restaurants in Darjeeling and, if so, what might they serve? I tell her haggis is off the menu. We arrange to meet at a Nepalese establishment later in the week, then say goodbye, happy to leave a little bit of ourselves with each other till then.

Sun on soaked streets; children skipping and bouncing balls against a wall; the crumbling stone walls, panelled houses, red sloping roofs and telephone wires stretching loosely across the gardens from pole to wooden pole.


Malcolm and I visited a Tibetan refugee centre this morning, researching a story on the preservation of Tibetan culture amid the diaspora of Northern India. It'll be a small, preparatory article before I tackle the Karmapa story.

The children at the nursery were pure mountain joy, their families nomadic by tradition but enclosed now in small settlements across the region. They dressed in traditional costume and sang and danced, their voices keening and clear - mountain singing - their movement ritualistically choreographed with slow spinning, circular motions around the wheel of samsara, or the seasons, or the passage around mountains.

Malcolm snapped photographs with British relish.

Older students learned Tibetan crafts and carpet making from traditional masters; others moulded clay into statues of the buddhas and deities. I asked an old teacher about Tibetan calligraphy and we talked a little about the Tibetan language.

The centre was spacious and clean, well lit, open, cheerful despite the obvious burden of displacement.

Malcolm tried to teach the boys how to bowl a leg break after lunch. Malcolm often tries too hard to preserve his British culture. As if British culture needed preserving!


The Nepalese restaurant was dark and mysterious, with red lighting and silk threads and paintings of wrathful Buddhist deities on the walls outlined in gold and dripping sequins. It was full of shadows and secrets, and might have been a 19th century Shanghai opium den. I apologised to Sah, but she said she loved it and would draw some penises on the walls a little later on. We ate soup and vegetable curry with flatbreads and rice, and it felt wholesome and healthy in contrast to the occult surroundings. It was also incredibly tasty and drew us into a warm and easy embrace, which developed into a conversation about the experience of pleasure and desire in Tantra. Sah's understanding and expression were so fluid and erotic, and the world might have dropped away while we lay on a mountain in the moonlight with the Mother Tantras coming to life in shimmering phantasms around us. It was light and free and entirely natural. She seemed to possess a hallucinatory magic which she spun around me effortlessly.

After dinner, we walked in the bright, tea-scented air, strolling downhill and along winding streets, full of Indian boys and bicycles, past rows of soft leafed trees and hedges, avoiding the rail track, stopping at the lassi stalls where they sell bhang and mint tea, and I listened to her tales of Bhutan and the Bhutanese royal family and a kingdom of absolute happiness.

Later, we parted with a soft kiss, and that night I slept alone, yet not alone, because my dreams were everywhere and everything at once.


I've been spending time with Sah, unable to write, unable to work or plan my days without her.

We sit in tea gardens; we lie on the grass; sometimes we kiss, then drink tea, then kiss a little more.


We spent the night together at my place. She opened something in me which I cannot begin to express. There is something deeper than the ocean; she laughs at my antiquated romanticism. It's all so completely natural to her.


And then more wonderful news! Rumtek has granted me an audience with His Holiness the Karmapa. Malcolm and I celebrate with a beer in a bar run by an Irishman who hates the British and claims to have been acquainted with Ghandi and privy to information that contributed to the downfall of the British Raj, the nature of which he is not at liberty to disclose.

We drink some bhang and I feel mildly euphoric walking through the streets in the early evening; bodies blurred in starlight, trails of light and the ubiquitous green glow; a soft hum rising in pitch and whooshing in my ears, then fading in a delirious crackle.

At home, I occupy the wicker basket chair hanging in the back porch overlooking the dark green lawn and a regiment of tall trees around the perimeter. Already I feel as if I have achieved something and it feels completely meritorious to the point where I'm swelling and puffing and validating myself before my father.

Padmasambhava taps me on the shoulder. I wake from my egoic reverie and drink some water; a ripple of guilt passes through and a perfectionistic critique of my personal lack of discipline sweeps over me. My mind becomes dull and I fall into bed without undressing.



She becomes the inspiration for a series of calligraphic poems. She becomes the wet, black ink.


There's an old British cinema in town; red velvet seats, lacquered wood, heavy blue drapes. An enormous chandelier hangs from the ceiling casting a dim light on the gold, floral wallpaper. Heavy, thick pews on sticky floors; uniformed ushers with torches; a little slice of Blackpool in Darjeeling.

Sah and I settled back with bonbons to watch a film directed by Satyajit Ray about a boy and his family in rural West Bengal. Slow moving camera in grainy black and white; haunting sitar; rain and mud and more rain. The actors weren't professional but the acting was exquisite realism devoid of pretence. The mother cooked food and taught her family how to live. Poverty and childhood wonder in a small village. Dogs, cows, ploughs in muddy fields. A story of struggle and nobility where the viewer loses himself in cinematic realism and emotional truth. Beauty in the illusion of reality; luminous and stark. Hauntingly sad.

The steady camera and slow pace of the narrative lulled us into a dream, and we emerged into the daylight world of the awakened, for a few moments altered, elevated, set down. She took my arm and we ambled through town without talking, lost in reflection, directed by a master of cinema in slow motion.

We drank tea in an English tearoom, floated into melancholy, drifting in and out of one another, overjoyed at our rediscovery. There was talk of the future, a visit to Sikkim.

We fell into bed in the late afternoon; soft breeze stirring the curtains; a veil caressing the most tender parts of our bodies.

Everything dropping away; presence central, total, almost overwhelming.


Sah has to drive to Gangtok with a colleague on business in the morning, so I'm alone in the evening, immersed in the absolute fullness of the experience of life in the vast cavern of the Universe.

My mind is utterly still, faint traces of Sah's touch still rippling through my body. I drink whisky and simply breathe.

Sometime through the night I'm wakened by the echo of the ghost train. It's like a memory or premonition which I believe I can actually hear. The bell, the whistle, the creaking chug of the engine along the track. It's quite disturbing.


Without Sah, puja becomes significant again. It's ok to reclaim a sense of self amid the offerings, to offer it to the guru and the deity, however rearranged or reformed it is by intimacy. My experience of puja becomes more surrendered, yielding more freely to the absolute.

Then, however, at a crescendo of horns and cymbals, something moves below us. Quite literally. The ground shakes. The storm of sound quivers and shreds and falls into a frozen, startled moment. Nobody knows what to do but the realisation that there's been an earthquake slowly dawns.


It's ok. No one is hurt, nothing is damaged. The Buddha still smiles in the monastery courtyard.


News comes in of a quake in the mountains near Kathmandu. The whole Himalayan region is affected. I'm immediately concerned about Sah. The paper sends a reporter out and information drips through gradually. We gather in the office and wait. Somebody makes coffee. It only manages to spike our anxiety. An earthquake is more than news. It's the death of hundreds of innocent people, the devastation of communities; unthinkable grief and loss. Thankfully, Darjeeling is relatively free from such damage, but the emotional shock is palpable.

Outside in the streets, the air is thick with dust and soot. People come and go without a glance, faces anxious, frightened; the hills still reverberating.


Landslides and mudslides, flooded valleys all across West Bengal, into Sikkim. Kathmandu devastated. Lord Vishnu rolling under the earth. The wrath of the Himalaya.


The wrath of the Himalaya. And something far worse than geological devastation. Sah's vehicle was swept off the road in a landslide near Gangtok. It plunged into the valley in a river of mud. She's gone, killed in the landslide. Sah is dead. I'm in complete disarray.

The news came later in the evening from an employee of the tea company she worked for. I was with Malcolm and our editor. It sunk me, quite literally. My knees buckled and I dropped into a chair, completely paralysed.

A huge chunk of the hillside broke off above a stretch of road already quite notorious. It poured down the valley dragging her vehicle into an abyss. It seems unreal, a horrendous nightmare. Something is ripping into my chest. Is it true? Maybe it's not true.

Malcolm confirms the story around midnight. Sah is gone.


It's 4am. The town is dissolving in cloud and rain. The death count is rising and I'm heading home from the office with Malcolm.


In the morning, I burst. My heart is flooded with grief and my mind is lost in the maelstrom. It feels like I'm rapidly plunging, then shooting up, as if flung from a catapult, then plunging again until I'm nauseous and throwing up in the bathroom. I feel enclosed in mud, buried; like I'm choking. I'm spinning and spinning, sliding and tumbling into water. My head throbs and I massage my temples; I stand up but I'm dizzy, so immediately sit back down. The wave of nausea passes but my body slows to a halt. Everything settles in darkness, and the world seems quite distant now; there is a profound and terrifying silence in my head.


Somehow, I found myself in the office later in the evening. The editor said I must be crazy and told me to go home and get some rest. Before that however, he told me that the interview with the Karmapa would have to be postponed. There was no access to Rumtek. All the roads and passes were blocked by landslides.

On the way out, Malcolm caught me, and quietly slipped a big lump of black Afghani hashish into my pocket. He said it was pretty strong and told me to try and relax, then patted me on the shoulder in that stalwart British way of his, genuinely caring.

I waited till midnight, when the town went to sleep.

The ball of hash was soft and dripped resin on to the paper. It smelled warm and pungent, and the smoke as I burnt it curled up like a spell. I mixed the crumbled powder with tobacco and sprinkled it on to some cigarette paper. I lit the cigarette, put the filter to my lips and inhaled deeply. My lungs filled and bellowed hot as I held the smoke for a minute. I puffed out the smoke and lay back on my chaise longue, resting my head on a green Oriental pillow.

The room was full of dancing shadows, like weird, tormenting puppets. I thought I heard the ghost train, but it may have been a motor vehicle. I smoked slowly, gradually melting into a soft, black ball. A feeling of well-being swept over me from my groin, filling my belly, my arms, my chest, then rushing through my head like a kiss. My head was light, full of air. Everything flowed softly in the room and swayed like palms in the breeze. Somebody was coming.

I felt like getting up but the impulse disappeared and I sunk deeper into a hallucinatory reverie. My mind was vibrant, glowing, with an evident lack of cogent thought; long, dark tunnels; twisting alleyways; narrow, winding forest paths. My heart beat faster and the blood rushed to my head, pounded in my ears - rushing, whooshing, raging magnificently. I closed my eyes and a red light switched on.

Immediately, I opened my eyes, and held my breath. Padmasambhava seemed to occupy the whole room as light, vanishing as I tried to catch him.

"Someone is coming," he said.

I had no response, just smoked some more.

My awareness drifted up, rose above my head, and I was somehow able to view beyond the room from a point above my head. It was as if I was an eye with supernatural vision; a floating, luminous eye.

I was in a garden, but the garden was enclosed. There were trees, and platforms, feeders hanging from branches. It wasn't a garden though, it was an aviary. There were hundreds of birds among the branches and lots of chirping and singing. Birds flitted all around. Yellow birds, blue birds, green and red and brown birds.

There was a man there too, heavy set and dressed in robes. His smile lit the aviary. I knew immediately it was the Karmapa. He was dark and radiant, exuding joy like a buddha. He called the birds and the birds came and landed on his finger. He gazed at them adoringly, appeared to communicate something; stroked them, set them off flying.

All of a sudden, I became a bird, a tiny, green finch, excited and energetic. I was a bird, being a bird, pure and joyous as a bird. He called me and I landed on his finger. I pecked and nibbled. He laughed and stroked my wing. I set off, flying high into the heights of the aviary, full of blessing.


When I came around later that night, I was parched. I drank two glasses of water and knew I had to sleep. There was nothing to do now but sleep, and maybe I could do puja in the morning. I plunged into bed and rolled onto my side, sensing the Karmapa still, or his blessing, my head full of flying. It was always best to sleep at times like these, and go to puja in the morning, where I could talk to the lamas, and tell them what had happened.

Stephen Nelson's last book was a Xerolage of visual poetry called Arcturian Punctuation (Xexoxial Editions). He has exhibited visual poetry and published prose and poetry internationally for a number of years. He lives by a burn in Central Scotland.
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